Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (Ivy, 1993).

Some weeks ago, I tried M.C. Beaton's most recent novel about Hamish Macbeth, and I enjoyed it enough to try sampling her other character, fiftysomething amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin. She lives in retirement in a little Midlands village not really unlike somebody else's setting of St. Mary Mead, where, steeped on a diet of detective fiction that she's borrowed from the local library, she absolutely insists on assisting police with their inquiries.

Unlike Macbeth, I started with the first Agatha Raisin novel. It reads very much like the confident work of somebody who's reasonably assured that she'll have a publisher interested in whatever she wishes to write, and can fill her pages with a giant supporting cast. It feels more like a TV series pilot than a novel, and why not? At the time, Macbeth had been made into a successful, lighthearted BBC drama starring Robert Carlyle and while Raisin has not yet made it to television, there have been a few full-cast recordings for radio. (If there ever is a Raisin TV series, it must surely star Dawn French.)

On the one hand, this is as fine an example as ever there will be of the modern "cozy" mystery, but at the same time, it's done with a really impressive knowledge of the genre. It's not quite a parody, but it knows what it's doing. Quite apart from namechecking so many authors who came before her, Beaton is able to devise precisely the sort of overinventive and very silly killing that used to aggravate the hard-boiled Chandler so much. Here, somebody has poisoned a quiche that Raisin purchased from a shop in London to enter into a local cookoff as her own. But they haven't even done it with arsenic or something sensible, but some absurdly rare and lethal plant. So was the poison meant for Raisin, who started off in the village making enemies-for-life with her big city ways, or for the judge. There's little to the murder beyond the intellectual puzzle, and Raisin's interest is hardly a quest for truth, but the role that she's invented for herself.

Frankly, I'm darned if I can figure how in the world Beaton is able to sustain such a silly premise, but she's written something like two dozen of them. I've set aside the next two books in the series. I won't claim that I'm chomping at the bit to tackle them, but I can certainly appreciate construction as clever and diverting as this. Recommended for people looking for light reading.

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